There are movies that get called pretentious when they’re not. Movies that approach their subject matter from a unique or perhaps obtuse perspective that, because of said approach, don’t spoon-feed the audience. They assume some intelligence or participation on the viewer’s part. Recent examples being Under The Skin, Upstream Color or Holy Motors. The method may be unconventional, but it’s purposeful. There is no pretense. These films know what they’re about. They’re thoughtful conversations that their creators are having with their audience.
So you’ll appreciate, hopefully, that when I call Birdman a pretentious mess, I’m not using the label haphazardly. I’m not confusing the term with ‘weird’ or ‘surreal’ or ‘difficult’. The film’s anti-hero Riggan (Michael Keaton) may hate labels, in fact he spits vitriol about them in a spirited tirade against critics, but right now here I am, a lowly critic, a self-appointed fool, labeling this movie. And I’m going with pretentious.
Pretentious movies are not always bad movies, indeed some are quite invigorating. Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, has long passages of greatness. The Tree Of Life feels pretty pretentious, but it’s also light as air and quite often inspiring. Birdman has such fleeting moments. Unfortunately they’re mixed in with a lot of risible self-indulgence. If the film concerns a man working his way through a midlife crisis, then one might assume from the outcome that the man behind the camera, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, is battling one as well, striving with great pains to remain relevant (was anyone questioning this?). As much as the film scolds critics and fickle audiences alike, it is desperately hungry for their appreciation and their love, much like poor Riggan.
Riggan Thompson is a former Hollywood star, known for portraying imagined comic book hero Birdman, who now, twenty years on, is trying to salvage his career and earn a little respect by launching a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver novel. The film follows the production’s fraught week of previews as everything starts to unravel for Riggan. One of his actors is replaced at the last minute with difficult-to-control Mike (Edward Norton); his on-stage co-star Laura (Angela Riseborough) is pregnant, his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant, and a voice in his head makes him want to trash his dressing room, goading him with past failures. Basically, he’s having a bit of a time of it.
Where in previous films Iñárritu has been a fan of the chop-and-change of collage and the free-fall scrambling of chronology (think 21 Grams), here he goes for the extreme opposite, favouring long takes that corkscrew the backstage corridors of the theatre, swooping up and down in the wings. Through some careful editing and subtle effects work this creates the impression that a majority of the film is one incredibly complex take. It’s nothing of the sort, of course, and this technique isn’t even innovative (see for one example The X-Files episode ‘Triangle’ circa 1998), yet to his credit it does lend the film a sense of claustrophobic vitality and volatile combustibility. The lack of visible edits makes Birdman feel like it’s dangling precariously at the end of a rope, suspended over an abyss. One false move and everything drops.
With such an impressive ensemble cast (which also reaches out to include the likes of Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis), it feels as though Iñárritu is reaching out for association with Altman here, bringing satire to the theatre. The trouble is that Iñárritu appears more mean-spirited than Altman. There is comedy here, but it’s injected with a curious backfiring bitterness. One senses, behind the smirk, that Iñárritu is really pissed off, but pissed off like a stroppy child moaning that it’s not fair.
Keaton is on great form as Riggan, but the pettiness of his woes – which Iñárritu paints as grand and important – render his melodramatic outbursts neither sad nor funny. It’s difficult to really care here. Imagine Alan Partridge without the jokes and you’re partway there. While we’re touching on the subject of great performances, that is one area where Birdman excels, especially if you like your acting big and brash and shouty. Emma Stone and Edward Norton in particular are fantastic to watch either together or separate. Stone brings Birdman to an astonishing first-act crescendo. It’s big. And brash. And very, very shouty. Regardless of the acting style evoked, Iñárritu has a proven track record with conjuring memorable performances and so it goes again here.
But for every treat (the delicious sequence in which Keaton is compelled to jog through a crowd of spectators in his underwear; his inspired casting in the first place) there is something excessive that screams “too much!” (the recurring sight of a drummer on screen performing the film’s rhythmic score would feel charming in a Michel Gondry music video; here it’s just pointlessly wacky). Most divisive of all, surely, will be Riggan’s ‘other-half’; the Birdman alter-ego that allows him moments of telekinesis. The inner monologue can be a tricky thing to sell as it so easily becomes heavy-handed (it was the weakest element of Locke). Iñárritu applies it with the sensitivity of Thor’s hammer. Some will cheer Riggan’s imagined superhuman abilities. Personally, it seemed totally unnecessary.
The constant craving to be thought of as an important piece of work is what ultimately divides Birdman. It is frequently entertaining. I do recommend that you go and see it in the cinema for the sheer overblown ill-conceived spectacle of the thing, marvel at the puff-chested audacity, indulge yourself in Riggan and Iñárritu’s pompous unraveling, but be warned that it all feels, ultimately, like an ambiguous Facebook status or Tweet, pining that something’s wrong, goading others to ask what it is. Prepare yourself also; this film feels as though it has more endings than Return Of The King. Or maybe, after about 90 minutes and with a good 30 to go, I was just eager for it to be over.